AFCC Family Court Services Resource

Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau

Program Description/Goals

Categories

Dispute Resolution
Parent/Child Access

Program is available through

The Court

The program serves families involved in family (domestic relations) court cases such as

Divorce
Never married
Separation
Paternity

Locale

Urban

Program can be replicated in

Urban

Program Purpose/Mission Statement

As prescribed by Indiana statutory law, the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau (DRCB), under the primary supervision of the St. Joseph Circuit Court and with the direction of all St. Joseph Courts, is to engage in various types of mediation, case management, and investigative/evaluative services for contested domestic relations situations, primarily relative to, but not limited to, child custody, the parenting time rights of non- custodial parents and modifications thereof. All recommendations of the DRCB are advisory in nature.

Goals and Objectives

Our goal is to educate the judges, attorneys, and parents on interventions for families that are child-focused and designed to help provide the family with the tools needed to reduce their conflict. This is accomplished through expedited screening assessments which are designed to quickly identify the level of conflict and the complexity of issues in contested family matters. This facilitates assessing what interventions are most appropriate for the family given their situation and needs. Service recommendations include mediation, case management, community service referrals or a family evaluation/investigation (both issue-focused and comprehensive). If there is a significant element of risk to a child in a party’s home, we include recommendations for temporary custody and/or parenting time arrangements.

Program Is:

Is currently operating

Implementation/Development

How the program works

Families are referred to the DRCB by court order. The high-risk screening assessment takes one to two hours to complete in a private interview with each party by a Family Court Specialist. Parties are informed that this is a non-confidential process as a report will be submitted to the court with copies included for distribution to counsel (if represented) or pro se parties. Routine criminal history checks are done on all adults living in each party’s home (or on other adults if there is an allegation of risk to a child or party by that adult). A report summarizing the family’s concerns and issues is sent to the referring court recommending what initial services or interventions would be appropriate given the specifics of the case. If the initial referral was for the appropriate service (mediation for a low conflict case or comprehensive evaluation for a high-risk case), the case is assigned to a Family Court Specialist. Once the service (mediation, case management, or evaluation), has been concluded a report is sent to the Court advising whether or not the intervention was successful/unsuccessful (for mediation or case management services). For unsuccessful cases, we may offer recommendations for further services (such as an evaluation). For issue-focused evaluations (such as home visit reports or children's interviews), reports summarizing the information gathered ares sent to the court with no recommendations . Comprehensive evaluation reports provide advisory recommendations concerning custody/parenting time and are based on Indiana statures concerning such. If a screening assessment indicates a different service is the more child-focused intervention than what the court ordered, the case is placed in "pending" to await further order from the court. If the court has not taken action on the screening assessment recommendations within two months, we send an inquiry letter as to how to proceed with services.

How this service/program makes a difference

We began using our high-risk screening assessment fully in 2006, in addition to providing services other than evaluation (mediation, case management, and community service referrals). Over the years we have seen an increase in the number of referrals for our services designed to help reduce conflict, such as mediation (by 44%) and a decrease in the number of referrals for comprehensive evaluations (by 31%). We have also noted a decrease in the number of families referred for services over the years. Over the past decade, we would provide services for over 300 families, while it has been approximately 200 families in the past four years (2012 - 2015). This may be attributable to our County mandating co-parenting/divorce education classes for divorcing parents, and becoming more accepting of, and using more, mediation services. St. Joseph County provides no-to-low cost mediation through the DRCB and an Alternative Dispute Resolution Program (funded by a $20 filing fee for each new dissolution filing) in addition to private practice attorneys. Mediation prior to litigation is also one of our Local Court Rules.

Evaluation Outcomes

In 2006, we were funded with grant money from the Indiana Supreme Court, and sent out evaluation surveys to judges, attorneys, and parents. The feedback that was returned to us was positive from the judges, a mixed response from the attorneys, and generally positive from the parents. As grant funding dried up, and our county budget was decreased, we had to stop the surveys. Any feedback received currently is casual in nature, such as thank you calls. We provide services for an average of 232 families annually.

Implementation

The DRCB was able to implement its high-risk screening process in less than a month because: 1. the original screening tool from Connecticut’s Family Services Program was already on hand and had been modified for our agency’s needs; 2. the staff had been involved in discussions about the new assessment tool and preliminary procedures; and 3. DRCB’s supervising judge approved and supported the new programming. These are some of the challenges we encountered.

Challenge #1: Staff resistance to new programming
Strategy: Include staff members in implementation plan
Strategy: Modify policies and procedures to reflect implementation
Strategy: Update job descriptions to reflect associated duties and responsibilities
Strategy: Individually supervised training

Challenge # 2: Funding for computer hardware and software equipment & subsequent upgrades
Strategy: Obtain grant funding.
Strategy: Obtain local ordinance to charge user fees and keep in non-reverting fund

Challenge #3: Staff resistance in moving from low technology to high technology
Strategy: Facilitate a series of meetings to discuss new technology
Strategy: Have higher skilled staff members work individually with the less skilled
Strategy: Implement performance indicators

Challenge #4: Out-dated County data processing and data management infrastructures
Strategy: Purchase private system server

The person conducting the screenings should have a Master's degree, and should have an administrative support staff. I wrote a High-Risk Screening Program development Guide in 2011 from grant funding provided by the Indiana Supreme Court as part of Indiana's Family Court Project. I would be happy to make that manual available if anyone is interested in starting a program using a high-risk screening assessment tool. It coves process topics from from idea to implementation. The assessment tool can be administered by pencil and paper, or through Excel programming. The manual provides guidance on both. Policies and procedures are discussed and job descriptions and sample forms are provided.

Sources of Funding

As a county government entity, we are primarily funded by public monies. We do charge fees for our services based on a sliding fee scale. Families with incomes at 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or less receive free services. Household incomes at 300% pay 1/4 the standard fee, those at 350% pay 1/2, etc. Standard fees for the high-risk screening assessment, mediation, and case management services area deliberately set low, while evaluation services are set high (the standard fee for mediation is $50 per parent for an unlimited number of sessions, while the standard fee for a comprehensive evaluation is $800 per parent). Our fees generally do not generate much funding (approximately $4,000 - 5000 annually), but this is enough to assist with training expenses and data processing needs.

Budget

$100,000 to $500,000

Application to Other Settings

What is special about this program

While we offer a number of services, this section will focus on the high-risk screening assessment because of its design and adaptability. It allows us to get the courts an expedited "mini-evaluation" within a couple of weeks to a couple of months (depending upon caseload, client cooperation and complexity of issues). We can advise the courts as to what services are most appropriate for a family. The program and its processes can be easily incorporated into various staffing structure models: Model 1 -- full-time in-house neutral (like DRCB); Model 2 -- community non-profit organization that provides the courts with neutrals and manages the program; or Model 3 -- the courts refer parties to private neutrals. It can be "low tech" or "high tech." The screening assessment can be "portable" in that it can be used in-office or in client's'homes or other meeting areas.

Advice for developing this program

The "tips" I mention in the manual include not burdening the neutral with administrative duties: include a member of the IT staff (if your organization has one) in the development and implementation stages if you wish to go "high tech;' if you go the "high tech" route, make sure your staff has "high tech" skills; and don't skimp on your personnel and data processing budgets.

Keys to success and improvements that could have been made

The main key to the success of all DRCB services was the grant funding received from Indiana's Supreme Court's Family Court Project. The purpose of the Project is to develop common sense models to better serve children and families in our courts. Another key to our success was a supportive and proactive supervisory judge who was instrumental in having the statutes concerning DRCBs amended to reflect a variety of services, and who was instmuental in promoting these services with the Judiciary, the Bar, and County officials. A third key was access to Connecticut's Family Services Program's screening tool which I learned about at an AFCC conference workshop. The biggest lesson learned is to have a MA-level individual conduct the screenings. BA-level individuals may not have the education/training/analytical reasoning needed to absorb a large amount of data concerning families in conflict, synthesize the data, and express it in a thoughtful, cohesive report. Other lessons are alluded to above as "tips."

What makes this program applicable in other jurisdictions

Our high-risk screening assessment already had come form another jurisdiction, we just modified it to fit our own's jurisdiction's needs. As mentioned previously, the screening tool can be easily implemented (if staying with "low tech"), easily modified, and can be used in other forums than a full-time, in-house court agency. such as DRCB.

Contact Person

Beth Kerns
Director
bkerns@co.st-joseph.in.us

Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau of the St. Joseph County (Indiana) Courts
Phone: 574- 235-9662
Fax: 574-235-5029

227 W. Jefferson Blvd. Room 820
South Bend, Indiana  46601-1830
United States

Website: N/A

 

Inclusion in AFCC Family Court Services Resource Guide does not imply endorsement of programs or services by AFCC. Inclusion in the resource guide indicates that the program meets the criteria listed on the previous page, based on information provided by the program. AFCC cannot warrant the accuracy of information about these programs or services and shall not be liable for any losses caused by such reliance on information. The AFCC Family Court Services Resource Guide is provided for convenience, and all users of this guide are encouraged to do independent research in choosing a program or services.